Larry "El Santo" Cruz takes a look at Aaron Diaz’s too-surreal-for-you webcomic, Dresden Codak.
A few nights ago, I was flipping through the channels on TV and the remote roulette eventually landed on the History Channel. You know … that channel that passes imaginary monsters and prison gangs as genuine moments in history. Really! What caught my ear, though, was a mention of something called the "Dresden Codex." Later research on Wikipedia tells me that the Dresden Codex is a folding book developed by the Mayans containing important astronomical information that were used to develop their renowned calendars. The History Channel episode, though, made a bold speculation that the Dresden Codex was proof that the world was going to end in 2012.
This, by the way, goes a long way in understanding the title of Aaron Diaz’s surreal, Salvador Daliesque webcomic, Dresden Codak. At the very least, it strikes down my previous theory that the series was named after a German photomat chain. (Because … see … "Codak" sounds like "Kodak," and … eh.) Dresden Codak, by dude-with-a-cool-hat Aaron Diaz, is one of those series that seasoned webcomic veterans seem to want to make sweet, sweet love with at first sight. The comic has garnered props from red carpet luminaries like Perry Bible Fellowship‘s Nicholas Gurewich, Bad God‘s Lore Sjoberg, and Shortpacked!‘s David Willis — all gentlemen whom I hold in high regard and seem really, really smart. (And yes, Willis is pretty smart in that charming obsessive-compulsive-over-toys way.)
So what is Dresden Codak about? I’ve read several comics over the past half year, and I can say without unnecessary hyperbole that it’s a comic that defies explanation. It may be this unabashed ambiguity that attracts readers in the first place. What I can tell you, though, is that the series starts off with a guy’s head blowing up. So let’s start with that, an apt illustration of what Dresden Codak can do to the unguarded mind. (In a happy coincidence, an exploding head is featured in both the first Dresden Codak (#1) and the first one available in the archives (#13). I suppose I should speculate why Mr. Diaz doesn’t link to Dresden Codak #1-#12 in his archives, but I’m sure he has his reasons. Besides, I’m still not over his obsession with exploding heads.)
The early part of Dresden Codak is swamped in the sort of brainy, whimsical chaos that Frank Zappa would’ve put together. It’s almost as if the comic were assembled in a psychedelic haze, yet infused with such logic and lucidity that you figure there’s no way Diaz could have been on drugs. Diaz frenziedly illustrates one absurd high-concept idea after another. Usually he shoe-horns some sort of obscure genius reference —- science, history, or whatever card you pull out of "Trivial Pursuit – Nerd Edition." There’s a comic about Atheist heaven, which probably earns massive Dork Love points because it features Nicholai Tesla (the nerd Elvis). There’s some philosophical discourse between two proper gentlemen living in a castle on the moon. And one features my favorite egghead-sounding concept with an important-sounding name, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. (By the way, my favorite previous use of Heisenberg was on Aquateen Hunger Force, where a genius Meatwad uses it to explain away how he could now teleport.)
I’ve come to the conclusion that Diaz writes the comic from his subconscious. It’s no surprise, then, that most of Dresden Codak feels like it exists in a dream state. Objects transform into other objects for no real reason. Non sequiturs pop up like the most normal thing in the world. On accompanying blog posts, sometimes Diaz recommends musical accompaniment, which only adds to my supreme bafflement. What does the guitar solo in Guns N’ Roses’ "November Rain" have to do with a character called "Old Man-Man?" I tried to queue to the soundtrack in my mind, but it somehow transformed Dresden Codak into something ultra-pretentious. In fact, you could say that the comic — with its focus on transhumanism, intellectual superiority, and abundance of gentlemen with one eyebrow arched just so — is always on the verge of becoming a snooty professor’s lecture. Fortunately, Diaz keeps the pretentiousness in check. He never takes his comic too seriously. Just when you think you’ve got him pegged as a dry intellectual, he throws in a screaming vampire’s head. It’s almost as if Diaz is winking at the audience and toying with our expectations. How else to explain a strange cameo of Nelson Mandela as a freedom fighter against invading aliens, or the appearance of Tiny Carl Jung?
Around 2006, Diaz begins to plant seeds that would eventually germinate into a long running plot. Around the same time, he starts to get obsessive over the cute character Kimiko Ross. Whether one has to do with the other is up for debate. (I think this unintentionally sends a message of "Aaron Diaz has finally discovered girls," but really there’s no need for me to get mean here.) This led to "Hob," a long-running story that ditched most of the earlier whimsy to craft an ongoing narrative. Fans can argue amongst themselves whether Dresden Codak was better pre-"Hob" or post-"Hob" … or more specifically, pre-Kimiko or post-Kimiko. Personally, I thought the "Hob" storyline was an improvement. Kimiko finds and takes care of an innocent, childlike robot named Hob. Meanwhile, time-travelers wearing funny clothes arrive to … do stuff. It turns out that, in the future, robots have turned on their creators, and humanity is on the verge of being wiped out. So this is a retelling of Terminator and Matrix, only it’s more colorful and less emo. It manages to roll together some mystery, some action, and some superpowers based on scientific principles.
Even though I didn’t know what was going on half the time, I thought "Hob" was a decent enough story. However, Diaz makes the same mistake that Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Arthur C. Clarke, and other high profile science fiction writers make: his characters have the personality of drywall. Perhaps characters in science fiction novels are merely observers to fantastic events, and their personalities would only distract the reader from the marvels of science. Or perhaps science fiction writers come from a primarily academic background and are unused to writing about realistic human emotions.
This is certainly the case with Kimiko. She starts out the series as an uncomfortable college girl who unfortunately blurts out nerdy quantum mechanic theories. She’s thrust in a series of one-off fantasy scenarios where she experiences crazy flights of fancy. Then, all of the sudden and without warning, Kimiko goes insane. I’m not sure if it’s a fundamental transhumanist philosophy to see the extinction of imperfect humans in order to give rise to beautiful humanoid machines, but that’s the philosophy Kim espouses. And I’m not sure if we’re supposed to root for her. If Kim is still the hero, then we’re effectively rooting for a genocidal maniac. If she’s a villain, there’s nothing from the previous strips that indicates this sudden transformation. Going from a scientifically curious young woman with fairy tale adventures to a full-blown monster in under 60 seconds? Shenanigans!
Most of the time, though, the colorful artwork is so eye-catching that you’re willing to forgive Diaz for any narrative lapses. Pre-"Hob" entries had an experimental mix of styles, most looking like an exceptionally drawn indie comic. By the time of "Hob," the style becomes more consistent. Diaz settles on a fluid, cartoon style … which, for good or for ill, looks like something out of Cartoon Network’s Codename: Kids Next Door. I especially love the detailed illustrations of a giant Hob towering over the countryside. And, of course, Diaz’s loving detail of Kimiko’s lady lumps.
Diaz also opted for non-traditional panel layouts, which has its benefits and drawbacks. They look something like stained glass windows at times. They’re arranged in the Scott McCloud-approved long vertical format, which attempts to tell whole stories by scrolling down the browser. This doesn’t work for all comics, but Diaz’s illustrations do tend to govern the flow. What I have a problem with are the word balloons. They’re a chore to follow … and there’s an awful lot of dialogue in Dresden Codak. The comic is one of the few that I’ll go back to earlier pages to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Maybe this is part of Diaz’s overall plan. The story is so boggling and layered that his panel layouts force the reader to reread old strips and slow down a bit. Still, few comics spur as much discussion and analysis as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and that sucker had the world’s most straightforward panel layouts.
The comic — despite the confusing story and layouts and all — does succeed in getting the reader to think. Like, for example, what in the world is "transhumanism"? I had to search the Wikipedia for that. It boils down to a belief that becoming a super-cyborg is a good thing. In the context of transhumanism, then, is Kimiko a hero? She’s not actively wiping out humanity, but she sees no problem in hurdling toward that possibility if she can be a catalyst in the next stage of evolution. Now, I don’t agree with Kimiko’s stance. But you don’t have to be a supporter of fascism to recognize that Heinlein raised up some interesting points in Starship Troopers. So what’s the final analysis on Dresden Codak? Is it a transhumanist propoganda piece? Is it a harmless adventure with the world’s most academic jokes? Is it a feeling of joy for all time? I’m going to have to conclude this review with the world’s most non-commital praise: I have no idea what’s going on in this comic, but I kinda like it. It’s rare to come across a webcomic that even attempts to tackle sci-fi beyond the Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica templates, so the very existence of "Dresden Codak" is appreciated. Like Kimiko Ross, "Dresden Codak" is pretty, smart, and will likely destroy me if I hang around it for too long. Probably by exploding my head. With snakes.